1 GASTR DEL SOL Camoufleur (Drag City). David Grubbs’s final collaboration with Jim O’Rourke is a fitting swan song, an absorbing collection of art-pop tunes expertly fitted with experimental flourishes. From Rob Mazurek’s sputtering cornet on the breezy “The Seasons Reverse” to Markus Popp’s fractal electronics on the melancholy “Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder” to Edith Frost’s gentle cooing on the Beach Boys-flavored “Each Dream Is an Example,” the many components are masterfully arranged, without a single wasted gesture. Rarely have gorgeous melodies and avant-garde tendencies been on such easy terms–unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of Grubbs and O’Rourke.

2 LUCINDA WILLIAMS Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury). Williams spent six years making this album sound like it was recorded in one last-chance evening–it’s an urgent, intelligent, electric blast of roots rock. She’s been one of the most striking and distinctive voices in music since her debut in 1979, but here every last cracked note conveys a gutful of steamy lust or pent-up regret. The year’s only perfect album.

3 LAURYN HILL The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse). Fugees vocalist Hill challenges the sad status quo of black popular music in one fell swoop on her solo debut: “Come on baby, light my fire / Everything you drop is so tired / Music is supposed to inspire / So how come we ain’t gettin’ no higher?” she sings over and over on “Superstar.” And sure enough her Miseducation blows away the puffy pretenders and the stale new jack swingers alike with the richest, most satisfying fusion of hip-hop and soul since Mary J. Blige first demanded the 411. On “Lost Ones” her rapping flows skillfully on and off the beat, and on “Ex-Factor” she wails like a genuine 60s soul sister, but she manages to erase the tension between the two styles with a magic touch that rarely fails her over the course of the slightly overlong album. Plus, there are no hired guns dropping the beats behind her–she did it herself, with minimal help from her many friends.

4 BILLY BRAGG & WILCO Mermaid Avenue (Elektra). The awesome privilege of setting unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics to original music didn’t cow Billy Bragg or Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy into writing pale imitations of the author’s folk style. Instead they crafted a charming, if familiar, homespun roots rock and performed it exuberantly. The lyrics, most of them more than 50 years old, never show their age, but they do show a more intimate side of Guthrie, which in turn lets us see the normally pedagogical Bragg as downright personable. And on the happy nonsense romp “Hoodoo Voodoo,” all three of the spirits involved seem as light as they ever have.

5 BLOQUE Bloque (Luaka Bop). Whether nonchalantly shifting stylistic gears or playing demolition derby with disparate genres, this stunningly agile Colombian combo never gets sidetracked by pomo cleverness. Its collective mind is free, and your ass can’t help but follow. Led by vocalist Ivan Benavides and the remarkable guitarist Ernesto “Teto” Ocampo, who can switch from Led Zep bravura to cumbia folkiness in the blink of an ay-ay-ay, Bloque pulls loose the seams of “rock en espa–ol” in its first few notes.

6 ROBBIE FULKS Let’s Kill Saturday Night (Geffen). With calculatedly outrageous tunes like “Fuck This Town” and “God Isn’t Real,” Fulks has pushed more than a few people’s buttons. But his decision to rock instead of twang on his major label debut isn’t some kind of bird flipped to the alternative country scene. Superlative songwriting is the core of his work, and the rest of it–his multigenre mastery and intimidatingly resourceful guitar playing–is just icing. He could tweak the hard rock of “Caroline” into a bluegrass stomper if he wanted, and nothing would really change. Those who’ve faulted his decision aren’t listening very closely: Let’s Kill Saturday Night is Fulks’s finest album.

7 LENINE O dia em que faremos contato (BMG Brasil). This Brazilian guitarist and songwriter has played with Caetano Veloso, Sergio Mendes, and Dionne Warwick, but his solo debut, whose title translates as “The Day We Will Make Contact,” makes plain that he’s a force to reckon with in his own right. His rhythmically hypnotic, soulfully gritty originals and well-selected covers are put through all sorts of wringers, coming out as everything from spare acoustic ballads to hip-hop enhanced sambas to an unplugged adaptation of the Chico Science stomper “Rios, pontes e overdrives.” Like Veloso and his cohorts in the tropicalia movement of the late 60s, Lenine consistently shakes things up, displaying an ambitious unpredictability that’s in woefully short supply in North American pop music.

8 STEVE COLEMAN Genesis & the Opening of the Way (RCA Victor). The most ambitious and fully realized recording yet from Chicago-born alto saxophonist Coleman, Genesis is a double CD that presents his knotty compositions in two different settings. The first disc was recorded with a band that included fellow horn men Greg Osby, George Lewis, Josh Roseman, Ravi Coltrane, and 17 other musicians, and Coleman makes good use of them all to augment his taut, funky rhythms with dense orchestral colors. The second disc features his lean regular band Five Elements–a sterling vehicle for his solos, tightly controlled but furious downhill slaloms of sound.

9 VARIOUS ARTISTS Ethiopiques 1: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975 (Buda). The first in what’s to be a ten-volume series on contemporary Ethiopian music, this French import focuses on the output of Ahma Records, an independent label that emerged to help document the creative explosion that took place in the final years of Haile Selassie’s rule. Like the pioneers of ska the various bands represented here took inspiration from American soul, but much more than their counterparts in Jamaica, they infused it with a traditional sensibility. The end result was a heavily syncopated R & B, with traces of ska and jazz, that featured soaring, melismatic singing that sounds more Arabic than anything. There are a few early selections by the great Mahmoud Ahmed, but the rest of the names will be new to non-Ethiopian listeners.

10 BLACK STAR MOS DEF & TALIB KWELI ARE BLACK STAR (Rawkus). Hip-hop has never been more pervasive on the pop charts than it was in 1998, but while most rappers were chasing the loot behind Jay-Z, Timbaland, Puff Daddy, and the Wu-Tang Clan, these NY MCs espoused a thoughtful positivity, asking for solutions instead of excuses, over irresistible borrowings from old-school faves like Boogie Down Productions.

Honorable mentions: Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins & Jim Black, Kulak 29 & 30 (Hatology); Pinetop Seven, Rigging the Toplights (Truckstop/Atavistic); Handsome Family, Through the Trees (Carrot Top); Gustav Mahler/Uri Caine, Urlicht/Primal Light (Winter & Winter); Joe Lovano, Trio Fascination: Edition One (Blue Note); Virginia Rodrigues, Sol Negro (Hannibal); Rachid Taha, Diwan (Island); Autechre, Autechre (Warp/Nothing); Dave Douglas, Magic Triangle (Arabesque); Chicago Underground Duo, 12¡ of Freedom (Thrill Jockey).